How do women’s sports measure up?

Posted on March 18, 2010


You’d hardly know it watching ESPN these days, but there are actually two NCAA D1 college basketball championships going on now: one for men, and one for women. In general there is a pretty sharp line in “official” sporting competitions between men and women, or men’s and women’s teams. In fact, it is probably a sharper line than the one we might draw biologically or sociologically between the sexes, as the case of Caster Semenya revealed last year.

This will be a brainstorming, agenda-setting post for This Sporting Life. I’m not sure yet what answering many of the questions below will tell us. But this blog is all about what we can learn about the non-sporting parts of life by looking at the sporting life, so anything that might shed light on gender relations and differences is fair game.

I took a stab, during one of  the Winter Olympics posts, at speculating about how good women’s hockey is compared to men’s hockey, currently or in the past. And I gave some reasons for thinking that the Canadian or US women’s teams now could beat an NHL team from the 1960s. This is not wild speculation. We know, for example, that in sports measuring time, distance, speed, height, etc, women’s world records are sometimes better than the men’s records half-a-century earlier.

Someone (with more time on their hands than I have) might produce an interesting graphic across several sports (in track and field, swimming, speed skating, cycling, etc) that tracks the “time lag” for women’s records to match earlier records for men.

Whatever lag there tends to be in mostly quantitative, mostly non-strategic, sports, I would speculate that the difference is smaller in sports that involve teamwork and strategy. Or to put is slightly differently, we could rank élite women athletes in many sports against men or boys at a certain age level (e.g. the best woman softball pitcher may be better than the best male under 18). But whatever that physical difference is, one would expect that an experienced women’s team in a strategic sport like hockey, soccer, or basketball should be able to beat a team of boys even if those boys were on average bigger, stronger, and faster.

Although I noted in that earlier post that the US women’s hockey team occasionally plays against élite boys high school teams — winning some and losing some — I didn’t learn until after the Olympics that the Canadian women’s team actually played in the Alberta midget boys league last year. (“Midget” is an official age-designation like “pee-wee” or “junior,” not a qualification by height.) Midget-league boys are aged 16 and 17, and Team Canada went 16 and 10 in league play. Interestingly enough, Sports Illustrated revealed that between lop-sided victories against inferior women’s teams during the Olympics, Team Canada was sneaking off to play midget boys teams in the Vancouver area in order to stay sharp for their pre-ordained gold-medal game against Team USA.

What do we know about the comparative level of women’s play in other sports? One of my undergraduate students, who was a star high-school basketball player, told me he had been on the practice squad for the Duke women’s team. Do we know about the results of competitive games between élite women’s basketball teams (WNBA, Team USA, UConn…) and men’s or boy’s teams?

How about tennis? Yes, I remember how the best woman in the world, Billie Jean King, took down the 55-year-old Bobby Riggs in the celebrated “Battle of the Sexes” in 1973. (Riggs had been the top-ranked male player in 26 years earlier.) Do we have reasonable ways of estimating whether Serena, on a good day, could beat a man ranked in the top 50 or 100, or any male under the age of 18? Top women players must practice by playing against men: how good are those men? Are there good grounds to speculate — based on racket-technology-adjusted service velocity, stroke technique, quickness, strategy, etc —  that the best women now could beat the best men in the 1960s or 1950s?

Figure skating is a more interesting case. Presumably we can compare the dates at which men, then women, mastered various athletic techniques (triple-axels, etc). But there are aesthetic criteria too. These presumably differ along gender lines: don’t judges consider different kinds of gestures to be elegant in men’s and women’s figure skating? Should they? Might it not be reasonable to argue, given that the sport does have aesthetic criteria, that the best women’s figure skaters are just better?

Are there sports in which the current gender-based divisions don’t make sense? Nobody thinks car racing or, say, poker (not a sport — but close enough) should be gendered any more. Some sports (e.g. boxing, wrestling, weightlifting) use weight classes. Should these replace gender divisions in some sports? A friend has suggested that ski-jumping is largely a matter of technique and weight, and that the distance differential between the men and women is not that significant. Would this be a candidate for an athletic non-gendered sport?

Is there any reason why Olympic sports involving horses or shooting guns (while not skiing) should have gender categories?

We know that women goalies can play successfully at the second-highest level of ice hockey (NCAA men’s league, NHL farm teams, junior men’s hockey in Canada). A shot — beyond the publicity stunt — at the NHL is conceivable. Are there any other position-players in major men’s team sports where we could expect women to excel? Say, a knuckle-and-curve-ball pitcher?Anything in basketball? Would cultural factors delay the day we first see such a thing?

I’m not sure what how relevant any of these questions are. We know that it has taken a long time for gender lines between occupational categories to fall — especially categories that had lines based on apparent physical or mental toughness (fire and police departments, combat roles in the military). We also know that much of the force behind preserving these lines was cultural and economic, not biological. Is sport lagging?

And then, of course, there are questions that arise from the fact that distinction between males and females is not, in every case, as cut-and-dried or as purely-biological as our folk wisdom presumes. I was invited this week to participate in a mini-conference on fairness issues arising in the context of contested gender designations (to be held at Duke in late April). I am already booked for that date in another part of the world, but maybe I can get someone from the panel to guest-blog.

In the meantime, comments about comparative sporting levels, or the relevance of any of these questions (if any) are most welcome.

Posted in: gender, NCAA, punditry, ranking